Thursday, January 28, 2010

Speaking Christian: Redeeming Christian Language

I have returned from my first field trip for this blog. I attended a discussion by author Marcus Borg in Scottsdale at the North Scottsdale United Methodist Church. The title of the discussion was “Speaking Christian—Redeeming Christian Language”. Borg mentioned that he is working on a book touching on the same content that he spoke on tonight. I arrived early and was able to meet him and have him sign my copy of “Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary”. In this post I want to just cover the material of his discussion much in the way he presented it with minimal commentary. Borg actually provided a lot of his lecture in a paper handout and encouraged us “borrow shamelessly” from his material. I will share my own observations in a later post.

While I was waiting for the discussion to start there was a woman playing Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninoff and she was excellent. The person who introduced the main speaker referred to the gathered audience as “The Borg Collective”. I appreciated the Star Trek reference. Dr. Borg began by asking everyone about their religious affiliation and people raised their hands as he mentioned each group. He didn’t mention Mormons, which sort of surprised me since I told him I was Mormon when he signed my book—but that’s alright. Marcus Borg has a great sense of humor and a quick wit. My favorite joke was when he mentioned Unitarian Universalists and said: “I see some to my right which I find a bit alarming” (Unitarian Universalists are known for being very left-wing).

He mentioned a comment that Pat Robertson made about Haiti. After the horrible earthquake in Haiti, Pat Robertson said: “They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince.' True story. And so the devil said, 'Ok it’s a deal.' And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got something themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another”. [1] Borg asked how anyone could think that about the Christian God. How could God punish a country for something that people did 200 years ago when all the people who supposedly made the pact were long dead? This kind of talk contributes to a negative image of Christianity. If Pat Robertson is right then Christopher Hitchens is also right that “god is not great”. He then read a letter to the editor in which someone wrote to Pat Robertson pretending to be Satan. I recommend reading the whole letter but one of my favorite lines is this: “when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth -- glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing... If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox -- that kind of thing.” [2] He used this as an introduction to the topic to show how important it is to communicate and show the best of Christianity rather than a distorted view that is often portrayed.

The premise of Borg’s lecture was that religions are like languages. “To be part of a religion includes using, hearing, and understanding that religion’s language. To be Jewish means ‘speaking Jewish,’ to be Muslim means ‘speaking Muslim,’ to be Buddhist means ’speaking Buddhist.’ So also, to be Christian means ‘speaking Christian.’ Of course, religions are about more than ‘speaking,’ about more than ‘words.’ They also involve a way of seeing reality and an ‘ethos,’ a way of life. But all of this is conveyed in language, in words.”

“An illuminating phrase from recent scholarship: Religions are ‘cultural-linguistic traditions’ (George Lindbeck, 1984). Something simple and important is meant: each religion originated in a particular culture and used the language of that culture, even if it also challenged that culture. Religions that survived over time became cultural-linguistic traditions themselves, each with its own language, stories, understandings, and ethos.”

He then outlined the problem: “Christian language in our time is often unfamiliar and even more often misunderstood.” It is unfamiliar because “in recent decades, more and more people have grown up ‘unchurched.’” It is misunderstood because “of two central features of the ‘common Christianity’ of the recent past that have shaped the meanings of much of Christian language.” The first feature is the literalization of Christian language—that “everything the Bible says is the literal, factual, and absolute revelation of God. Literalism flattens the meaning of language and, of course, distorts it.”

The second feature that makes Christian language misunderstood is a misunderstanding of Christianity’s core message. Many Christians describe this core message in terms of the afterlife, our sinfulness, and Jesus’ death as the basis for our forgiveness. But the words used to describe the message are often not understood in their full range. Some of the most basic Christian words include: mercy, repentance, redeem, faith, believe, and salvation.

The word “mercy” is usually used to describe “what we need from God: to be forgiven in spite of our wrongdoing”. It is the idea that humanity is sinful and evil. But mercy is more than just getting off the hook. Mercy is compassion, empathy and love expressed to those who suffer and are afflicted. It is Christ succoring us in our hour of need. It is this kind of compassion that God shows toward us in our times of trial and that he expects us to show toward others.

Repentance is usually understood as “contrition about our sins and resolving to try to live otherwise”. Again it is the negative view of humanity; the idea that we are vial and evil and that we need to feel horrible about ourselves to repent. But repentance in the Bible is used to describe a “returning” to God. It has nothing to do with self-loathing. In fact self-loathing is counter-productive to returning to God. True repentance means “to go beyond the mind that you have,” to put yourself at one with God.

Redemption in the Bible is used to describe redemption from bondage and slavery. Bondage could refer to emotional or psychological bondage. We could be in bondage to our own bad habits and addiction. But as our Redeemer, Christ can free us from this bondage.

Faith and belief are usually understood to mean an intellectual assent to certain tenets and principles—to assert that such-and-such is so. But faith is something much deeper than this. To have faith is to be faithful to something. It is to be committed to something. The deeper meaning to the word “believe” is “to belove”. To believe something is to give your heart and dedicate yourself.

Salvation is “one of the ‘big’ Christian words—as central to Christianity as nirvana” is to Buddhism. Unfortunately, it is to many a loaded word that carries a lot of baggage. Some people have a negative association with the word because they see in it the implicit threat of Hell and damnation. It carries the baggage of an “in group—out group”. Those who got their beliefs right or were born into the right faith are rewarded in Heaven while everyone else is out of luck. But in the Bible salvation is much more.

Salvation in the Old Testament is used in to refer to salvation from bondage as in the story of the exodus from Egypt. In the New Testament times the word “savior” was used to refer to the Roman emperor. The Roman emperor was the great savior who brought peace on Earth by unifying the empire from civil war. But Christians in the early days of the church used this same terminology to refer to Jesus as if to say “Jesus is the Savior who brings real peace on Earth.” The peace that Jesus brings is not the kind that the emperor gives [the world giveth], not the kind of peace brought about by armies and governments, but peace that comes by drawing near to God (John 14:27).

The primary Biblical meaning of the word “’salvation’ is about transformation in this life, this side of death—the transformation of ourselves and of the world. It’s both personal and political, concerns both individuals and the transformations of societies.” Salvation is about healing.

There are multiple images for salvation which include transformation from:
· Bondage to liberation
· Exile/estrangement to re-connection
· Sickness/woundedness to wholeness
· Blindness to seeing
· Death to life
· Anxiety to freedom from anxiety
· Self-preoccupation to the ability to be present and compassionate
· A world of injustice to a world of justice
· A world of violence and war to a world of non-violence and peace

“Transformation [is] a concise crystallization of what Christianity and the Christian life are about.” Borg phrased the question: “What’s our product?” What is it that Christianity has to offer the world? “Transformation is our ‘product,’ message. It responds to our deepest yearning. Religions are means of ultimate transformation.” Our speech and method of speaking about Christianity must make it clear that we are called and invited to experience a transformation. And these words are words of life.

In his final comments Borg said, “Christianity at its best is magnificent”. It struggles at times and can sometimes be distorted from the pure, authentic teachings of Christ. The great religious struggles are not between religions but within religions themselves, seeking to define themselves. But at its best Christianity is magnificent. It is the means of transformation that responds to our deepest yearning.

[1] (retrieved Jan 28, 2010)

[2] (retrieved Jan 28, 2010)

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